When Game of Thrones ended earlier this year, pop culture pundits not only mourned the end of a monumental hit, but also the perceived death of the monoculture – omnipresent pieces of pop culture that feel like most of the population is engaging with it. And while it’s true that creating brand-new worldwide blockbusters in the age of streaming, social video, and Peak TV seems increasingly unlikely, the death knell for monocultural television hasn’t quite rung. Need proof? Ask anyone between the ages of six and 26 about SpongeBob SquarePants, then stand back and listen to the barrage of quotes, favorite gags, and beloved episodes. Then marvel at the fact that after two decades on television, SpongeBob is still cruising, full steam ahead.
Celebrating its 20thanniversary this year, SpongeBob SquarePants is a comedic touchstone for a generation, spawning 244 episodes and counting, two feature-length films (with a third on the way), a Tony-winning Broadway show, global merchandise sales north of $13 billion, an upcoming spinoff series, and enough memes to power its own corner of the internet. Naïve, sweet, and optimistic, yet deeply bizarre and character-driven, SpongeBob SquarePants appeals to innocent children, mischievous teens, nostalgic 20-somethings, and parents enjoying time with their kids. Nickelodeon has released over 100 programs since SpongeBob’s first episode on May 1, 1999, and while most of those series have come and gone, the absorbent, yellow, porous pop culture icon perseveres.
“It just has gotten into people’s lives. Everybody’s got a story about some fun SpongeBob moment they’ve had, or some episode that they love, or some SpongeBob joke that they’ve been doing with their best friend every day for years,” Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob, says while reflecting on his gig for the past 20 years. “It’s pretty great. We’re definitely aware of the unusualness of it, and that it’s just an incredible opportunity.”
The longevity of the series isn’t lost on the show’s voice actors. In the age of the gig economy and the increased scarcity of long-term jobs, the cast of SpongeBob knows that they’re in rare waters. “When I was in acting school studying theater, we didn’t have a chapter on how to handle the 20th year of a character,” says Bill Fagerbakke, the voice of SpongeBob’s best friend and partner in nautical nonsense, Patrick Star. “That phenomenon is not lost on me.”
For Rodger Bumpass, who voices SpongeBob’s pretentious and cynical neighbor Squidward Tentacles, the line between where he ends and where the character of Squidward begins has started to blur. “It becomes a second skin. I used to say that he was my alter ego. As the years have gone on, I have become more Squidward, so I shoo people off my front lawn a lot more than I used to,” Bumpass says with a laugh. “It really is a very interesting thing and quite unique. With the possible exception of The Simpsons, we’re pretty much up there, as far as longevity for animation, and it’s a very honored position to occupy.”
SpongeBob has ebbed and flowed through the life of writer and story editor Doug Lawrence, who professionally goes by the name Mr. Lawrence, but it’s always remained a constant. Lawrence voices misunderstood villain Plankton and a plethora of other supporting characters, and while he’s always been an integral voice on the series, he’s left the show as a writer and come back – a rarity in the industry.
“Usually, you don’t get the opportunity to keep going back to a show that’s still there,” he says. “That rarely happens. After a while you start to count on it. You start to worry that you’re counting on it too much to be there. We sort of feel an ownership or a responsibility to make sure that the shows are still quality and really funny and that they have a surprise in them or two, so it doesn’t get stale. It’s a hard thing to make a show keep having sparks flying out of it and I think we’re still able to achieve that.”
There’s a lot you can credit SpongeBob’s success to: its use of character archetypes grounded in classic forms like commedia dell’arteand the works of Shakespeare, its penchant for broader slapstick and physical comedy that harkens back to duos like Laurel and Hardy, and its clever peppering of highbrow references, surrealist flights of fancy, and continued experimentation. However, ask the cast and crew of the series, and they’ll agree that it all comes back to creator Stephen Hillenburg, who tragically passed away at the age of 57 in November 2018 following a lengthy battle with ALS.
“I never really met anybody like him, and I’m sure I never will,” Kenny says. “He was super smart and intensely interested in a lot of different things. Whether it was surfing, oceanography, earth science, animation, or comedy. He was just this amazing stew of stuff that he liked. SpongeBob, I think, was this lightning in a bottle, where he just synthesized a bunch of his interests into one bit.”
A former marine biology teacher, Hillenburg created SpongeBob back in 1989 as a character in a comic titled The Intertidal Zone, intended to teach children about the diversity of the intertidal pools. Hillenburg eventually moved into television and worked on Nickelodeon’s Rocko’s Modern Life. When that series ended, Hillenburg and several co-workers on Rocko’s, including Lawrence, got the opportunity to pitch a new series to Nick’s top brass. “We were all trying to get pilots going around the same time,” Lawrence remembers. “This is the only one out of all of us that actually got made.”
The cast fondly recalls Hillenburg as a creator focused on character, with a strong sense of what the show was and wasn’t. They credit him with having a knack for hiring the right people, for imbuing SpongeBob with his own sense of optimism and hope, and deeply caring about not only the comedy, but the integrity of the show. The cast describes the upcoming third SpongeBob film, The SpongeBob Movie: It’s a Wonderful Sponge, as a loving, feature-length tribute to Hillenburg.
The sentiment of respect and admiration shown to Hillenburg spreads throughout the whole cast. Since episode one, the voice actors have recorded as an ensemble, and their deep knowledge of not only their own characters, but of the others, has made them operate like a tight, improvisational jazz group, still capable of being blown away when a member of the band grabs the spotlight for a virtuosic solo.
Speaking about his colleagues, Fagerbakke says, “[Tom Kenny is] just one in a million and every session we have, I thank my lucky stars that he was cast as SpongeBob. Rodger Bumpass is so hilarious, Clancy Brown [Mr. Krabs], so funny, Mary Jo Catlett [Mrs. Puff], and Carolyn Lawrence [Sandy Cheeks], they’re so wonderful at what they do, they bring so much humor, and Lori Alan [Pearl Krabs] and everyone. Doug Lawrence, wow, I mean, look at that vibrant character in Plankton and what that means to the show.”
Credit the vision, the craft, and the care, but at the end of the day, the goofy goober at the center of this landmark animated series is the ever-endearing hook. SpongeBob is both who we all are – capable of being silly, neurotic, over-confident, and a little annoying at times – and who we aspire to be: kind-hearted, selfless, happy-go-lucky, and innocent. Broadcast in over 50 languages, SpongeBob is a rare character that cannot be lost in translation or the evolution of pop culture. Why? Because at the end of the day, he still makes us smile.
“It’s neat to know that all these different people with different cultures and different experiences all over the globe, they find something in SpongeBob and his world that’s identifiable to them,” says Kenny. “All these different corners of the globe, there’s something there that people glom onto, regardless of their hugely heterogeneous life experience and ways of life. I guess that’s a testament to Steve Hillenburg, but in a bigger sense, a testament to comedy and silliness and laughter.”
Nick Harley is a tortured Cleveland sports fan, thinks Douglas Sirk would have made a killer Batman movie, Spider-Man should be a big-budget HBO series, and Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson should direct a script written by one another. For more thoughts like these, read Nick’s work here at Den of Geek or follow him on Twitter.